Gendered Reading: Why It’s Harmful to Young Readers

From birth, we are socialized by our parents, peers, and society. Gender socialization, or various norms and behaviors associated with different genders, plays a large role in influencing our preferences and interests, from the clothing we wear to the books we choose to read. Children are especially susceptible to this socialization, as they rely on the people around them, such as parents and teachers, to learn and understand what kind of behaviors are good or bad. If a parent tells their child that the book they want to read is “not for them” due to their sex, they are going to absorb this as true. It’s important to be aware of this gatekeeping based on gender that can keep kids from their true interests.

Screenshot from Twitter, tweet by @MrWilBaker

The tweet above by user @MrWilBaker provides an example of such labeling. They argue, “how can a great book be gender specific?” Why should one gender be recommended books like The Tale of Despereaux, while another the other is recommended The Magician’s Elephant? Both are written by the same author, yet our society selects elements of the stories and chooses to gender them.

Screenshot from Walgreens

Gender socialization has led to products being gendered in our daily lives, including clothing, toys, books, and even hygiene products like shampoo. We as a society are conditioned to believe this packaging is normal and natural, a consequence of our biology (rather than of socialization and marketing). While there are some biological differences between men and women, these do not explain why men shouldn’t like pink or why razors need to be labeled by gender when they’re the same product, only packaged in different colors. It is particularly important for librarians to be aware of these gender labels being placed on books, specifically children’s literature, as this labeling has consequences.

The Devaluation of Femininity

Gendered literature is harmful to readers because of the double standard it creates: girls are expected and/or encouraged to read books about boys (and girls), while boys are discouraged to read about girls. This directly relates to the devaluation of femininity, as boys are taught to avoid things that are feminine to retain their masculine identity, or “man card.” Femininity is often viewed as everything masculinity isn’t; weak/soft instead of strong, submissive instead of dominating. Masculinity is defined as being non-feminine, and “femininity, it seems, degrades masculinity in a way masculinity does not degrade femininity” (2017). Consider the common insults thrown at boys if they show weakness: sissy, wuss, pussy, girl. All of these insults are gendered and related to woman and girls, and equate femininity to weakness.

A similar phenomenon is demonstrated with slurs like f*g, which not only has homophobic implications, but gendered and racial connotations as well. As C.J. Pascoe argues in her work ‘Dude, You’re a Fag’: Adolescent Masculinity and the Fag Discourse, “becoming a fag has as much to do with failing at the masculine tasks of competence, heterosexual prowess and strength or an anyway revealing weakness or femininity, as it does with a sexual identity” (p. 330). This is another example of gender socialization, in which men’s masculine identity is ‘regulated’ by peers and teachers to encourage and uphold traditional norms. When boys or men step outside of this norm, they risk ridicule or isolation. On the other hand, it’s generally acceptable for girls to be “tomboys” and adopt ‘masculine’ traits (especially in leadership positions) because our society values masculinity over femininity. It is much less accepting for a boy to participate in ‘girly’ activities such as wearing makeup, playing with dolls, or reading books about princesses.

Girls are expected to read about both girls and boys—books with male protagonists like Harry Potter are considered to be for any gender. Books with a female protagonist, however, such as Twilight or The Fault in Our Stars, are often labeled for girls and girls only. The same goes for movies about women, which are often labeled “chick flicks.” Why should boys be interested in girly stories like that? (Of course, there are boys who are interested in these books or books with female leads, which is why labeling and gatekeeping are problematic). Masculinity, as Bailey (2017) from the blog Ezer argues, seems to be “both distinctly masculine and the gender neutral expression of humanity.” Boys are therefore taught that books about or primarily featuring girls are not for them, as they’re ‘girly.’ Girls are expected to read about men and their stories, but men are not expected to do the same.

Teaching Boys that Women’s Voices are Unimportant

By devaluing femininity and teaching boys not to read stories about girls, we are also teaching them to devalue women’s and girls’ voices and stories. Likewise, stories are influential and have a lasting impact on readers. As author Kasey Edwards states, “[m]en and boys who are never encouraged to even try to understand, relate and respect the experiences and stories of girls and women are missing out on those valuable lessons in empathy.” Never reading about a whole group of people’s stories can lead to ideas of inequality and assumptions that those voices don’t matter and that there is no value in considering those perspectives. Boys may come to expect that men dominate, that their voices are the ones that matter because that is what they read about. For example, most of the classics taught in school are written by White men, about White men (although this is arguably improving as time goes on). This teaches impressionable kids that men are the primary writers, that their stories are the thought-provoking, exemplary ones, while the novels written by women often get written off as “chick lit.” J.K. Rowling was told to use initials by her publishers for her Harry Potter novels to avoid this, as they thought boys would be less interested in an adventure series written by a woman. The usage of masculine pen names was also extremely prevalent with the female authors of classics, such as the Brontë Sisters and Harper Lee (the latter left off her more feminine first name, Nelle). Additionally, classics often contain sexist (and racist) language or stereotypical roles for women, which are important to be aware of. This isn’t to say that all the classics or books about boys or men are bad or shouldn’t be read, but that these collections should expand to include other voices too.

In recent years, more and more people are recognizing the value in reading about different perspectives, which has inspired campaigns like We Need Diverse Books, which encourages inclusion in literature. Reading about other people’s experiences, especially through their eyes, can go a long way in teaching empathy and equality, which boys miss out on if they are discouraged to read about girls. Not only are we telling girls that books featuring girls are inferior to books about boys, but we are also telling them that their stories are irrelevant to half of the population.

Alienating Readers and Their Individual Preferences

Another harmful consequence of gendered books is that, by stating certain books are for a specific gender, readers can become alienated if they are not part of this specified audience. The campaign Let Books Be Books notes that this gendered packaging can “turn children away from their true preferences, and provide a fertile ground for bullying.” A child who want to read a book about princesses, for example, may experience ridicule by peers due to our society’s socialization of princesses being for girls (even though the princess can have a just as engaging and entertaining story to tell as a prince or knight). By upholding these gender socialization norms that force a person’s preferences to be based purely on their sex, society is limiting the kinds of stories kids read and contribute to unnecessary policing of one’s gender. By labeling the books, however, Kelly Jensen of BookRiot argues that we “tell boys who share these interests [in books about girls] they’re inferior. . .because the ones that they do have an interest in are ‘girly.'” And plenty of boys do enjoy reading about girls, when given the chance, as shown by the #BoysReadGirls hashtag on Twitter.

Reading should be about individual preference and reading the stories that interest you personally. Gatekeeping books on the basis of gender does more harm than good and only limits the kinds of books children are exposed to, which can discourage people from reading completely. Furthermore, it’s important that libraries support people reading about different perspectives and voices to cultivate empathy and understanding.

I want to hear from you: Have you had experience with this kind of labeling of books (or movies, games, toys)? What effect do you think this had on you or those around you?

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